The world has lost one of its great storytellers — the Victor Hugo of sportswriting


National Post, 1 June 2017

Reading Frank Deford’s long pieces — it really didn’t matter the subject — in Sports Illustrated as a teenager was for me an important introduction to the power of the word. Those stories, thousands of words long, have largely disappeared in the digital age. While it is the case that the Internet can accommodate any length, it has also produced an attention span that is incapable of almost any depth.

Almost 60 years ago, a 6’4” basketball player at Princeton was told by his coach, “You write basketball better than you play it.”

Frank Deford gave up playing the game then, and not long after began writing for Sports Illustrated. He was much better at writing. Better, in fact, that anyone else, for more than half a century. Even if he had been as good as Michael Jordan at basketball, he would still have been better at writing basketball — and tennis, and hockey, and boxing, and whatever else caught his attention. Deford, who died on Monday at 78, was the best sportswriter I have ever read.

Superlative sportswriting begins with superlative writing. So much writing on sports is so poor that it is commonly thought that sportswriting is not for serious writers. Yet it remains a literary form. It is possible to be a belletrist writing about box scores.

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